B. Hunter Farrell: The Power of Co-Development

Excerpted from Freeing Congregational Mission: A Practical Vision for Companionship, Cultural Humility & Co-Development (pp. 112-13, 116-19), by Hunter Farrell &
Balajiedlang Khyllep (InterVarsity Press Academic 2022)


I’m standing in the middle of Peru’s coastal desert, a million miles from anything, wondering what in the heck I’m doing here. Miles and miles of sand and broken rock frame the horizon. “It’s just ahead, brother. Can you see it yet?”

“Definitely not,” I think to myself.

A U.S. Christian development agency had asked me to visit the Haya de la Torre Association, a group of landless farmers who had been working together once a week for 16 years in an attempt to cut a 1.4-mile-long irrigation canal out of solid rock. The canal would irrigate 2,700 acres of parched land and provide the farmers with land for themselves and their children after them. With only 124 yards left to go, they had requested funds to rent the heavy machinery necessary to cut and cart away the rock. I took one look at the granite mountain in front of us and chuckled to myself. It looked like pure foolishness. But I guess I’d never really seen faith move mountains before.

A charter member of the association, 68-year-old Alicia Moraga, showed me the 1.3-mile ditch already cut and carefully lined with rock. Using ancient technology that dated back to the Inca Empire, the community had coaxed water out of the Huara River, high above the arid lands, and brought it within reach of their goal. I looked at Alicia, perplexed. “Sixteen years? What kept you going, Señora?” I asked.

Now it was Alicia’s turn to be perplexed.

“But you should know about hope, pastor! We want our children to have a better life than we’ve had, and they’ll need land for that.”

Alicia said the association had bet that if they could bring water to the arid, unclaimed land overlooking the town of Humaya, they could obtain land—approximately 40 acres per family. All along Peru’s bone-dry Pacific coast, the equation is simple:

land + water = life

I stopped in my tracks.

The thought of dirt-poor peasants working for 16 years with picks and shovels to access water for their children made my definition of hope look pretty wimpy.

They had already raised money for the hydrological study and had successfully battled both a mining company and the government to retain title to the arid land…I smiled as I suddenly realized our God’s remarkable sense of humor. This is precisely where the church works best: sharing modest funding with poor and oppressed communities through community-initiated, community-managed projects. This is mission “with,” not “for.”

And so in Humaya, Alicia Moraga and her small band of poor, landless farmers are opening up a small piece of God’s Reign to provide hope and an inheritance for their children. And I’m thankful to Alicia and her community because they have shared with me a faith that moves mountains…

Is there a way to understand the development of human beings and of their communities in a different—in a postcolonial way—stripped of the paternalistic assumptions of “I develop them”?

Can we recognize the image of God in each person and understand that it is impossible for me to develop any other human being—that each person and community is responsible before God for developing themselves to the best of their ability?

In a very real sense, the verb “develop” cannot take an object: I cannot develop you. But perhaps, by God’s grace, I can contribute to the conditions that allow you to develop yourself by removing barriers and offering tools…

The power of co-development is in its radical mutuality. It rejects the implicit sense of power and control “givers” thought they possessed and insists that, as companions walk together with God, there is no “giver” and “receiver”: there are only human beings desperately in need of God’s grace in Christ. Thus, co-development is a radically mutual process that invites all to bring to the circle the gifts God has given them to offer to their mission companions. In doing so, all

will be changed. Perhaps you’ve heard a missionary, after a lifetime of sacrificial giving in communities of material poverty, sum up their entire missionary career with the surprising words, “I received so much more than I gave.” What is it these servants understand about life in God’s realm that many in the church have missed?

I don’t know about you, but even in the most important relationships in my life—my wife, my friends, my siblings—my efforts to “develop” them have been notorious failures. These loved ones would (with good reason!) question and even resent my efforts to change them. But they have generally welcomed my willingness to walk with them in their efforts to improve their own lives—if I enter that space with some humility, empathy, and compassion and if I’m willing to open my life to their companionship. Without that sense of reciprocity, human relationship becomes case work or a task list: it’s my responsibility to improve you…

This is the genesis of true co-development, both personal and communal. As we walk as companions in God’s mission, it is critically important that we walk in the freedom of unconditional love, freeing the other to be the person God intended them to be and not what we would desire them to become. This prevents us from treating the people God invites us to accompany as the objects of our mission and safeguards their place as subjects in the mission of God.

Honestly examining our plans and actions against a commitment to relate to our companions as the primary subjects of God’s mission in their community can free us from old, colonial patterns in ways that can upend hierarchical mission relationships and open a space for a closer, more authentic companionship in mission. I am convinced there are few actions we can take that so profoundly improve our mission relationships and enhance the changes our companions and we seek.


B. Hunter Farrell (doctor of anthropology, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú) is the director of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s World Mission Initiative (WMI). He worked for over thirty years as a missionary, director of world mission for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and a professor of mission and intercultural studies.

He has published articles in The Journal of Latin American Theology, Christianity Today, and Missiology and is the co-author, with Baljiedlang Khyllep, of Freeing Congregational Mission: A Practical Vision for Companionship, Cultural Humility & Co-Development (InterVarsity Press, January 2022).


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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